Prof links guilt to pro-social action

Dr. Kim collaborated with other researchers to look at methods for increasing participation in social causes. (Photo by: Jessica Dik)

Dr. Kim collaborated with other researchers to look at methods for increasing participation in social causes. (Photo by: Jessica Dik)

It’s not always easy to get people to recycle, to donate to charity or volunteer their time to social causes.  Yet society needs people who are willing to give their time and effort to these duties.

The question of how to motivate the masses to act is something one Wilfrid Laurier University professor has spent three years trying to answer.

Laurier professor of marketing Hae Joo Kim and her partners, Pankaj Aggarwal, a professor in the department of management at the University of

Toronto Scarborough, and Hee Kyung Ahn, a professor at Hanyang University in South Korea have been working together to try to answer the question of how to move people to exhibit more pro-social behaviour. Their findings have been published in the study, “Helping Fellow Beings:

Anthropomorphized Social Causes and the Role of Anticipatory Guilt.”

The answer, according to the study, is to put a human face on it.

“People don’t feel personally responsible for doing things like recycling and protecting the environment,” said Kim.

Social duties are often the responsibility of society as a whole and as a result people often feel little individual responsibility.  By putting a human face on an issue, people feel more guilt and as a result feel greater motivation to act, the study found.

By putting eyes and a mouth on an organic waste bin with a caption that read “Please feed me food waste,” for example, they found participants were more likely to put food waste in that bin than in a plain organic waste bin.  The face on the bin was made to look sad, as if it were hurt because of  lack of use.

“It’s just one tool that policy makers, or any type of organization, can use to get people more involved in pro-social causes,” said Kim.

According to Kim, the government often imposes fines as a means to encourage participation in social causes.  She points out that her research and that of her partners’ points to a very cheap and easy alternative that may be more effective.

“We are not consciously aware of why seeing a human face on a campaign has an impact, but we definitely feel a deeper connection to it,” said Aggarwal in a media release.

The research started over three years ago, while Kim was still in her doctoral program at the University of Toronto.

“Me and one of the co-authors started talking about what might get people to engage in pro-social behaviour more easily,” said Kim.

She hopes that the government and charitable organizations will use these findings to encourage more pro-social behaviour in the public.  The study is currently available online and will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science.

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